Bring The Past to Life at The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs | Black Hills Travel Blog
  • Bring The Past to Life at The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs

Hidden in the Southern Black Hills is a small town of 3,500 that has a secret over 26,000 years old. The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs is located on top of an ancient sinkhole that was the final resting place for many mammoths, as well as a camel, coyote, short-faced bear, and other creatures native to the Black Hills region.

The Mammoth Site is not your average museum. It’s an active dig facility that allows you to witness the excavation process from beginning to end. Upon entering, you'll be greeted by a Columbian mammoth skeleton and a woolly mammoth skeleton for side-by-side comparison.

A wooly mammoth in the foreground compared to the much larger Columbian mammoth in the background. A wooly mammoth in the foreground compared to the much larger Columbian mammoth in the background.

Before entering their dig site, you have the opportunity to watch a 10-minute introductory video on the history of The Mammoth Site and how it came to be. This video takes place in one of two brand new theaters. Afterwards, a tour guide will take you through the dig site and point out specific areas of interest and answer any questions you might have. This can be followed by a self-guided tour with further details about the site. Soon to come will be interactive displays that can sync with your phone and provide even more information.

The dig site is temperature controlled and sits around 75 degrees in the summer and 45 in the winter, so bring along a layer depending on when you visit. The humidity is kept at 55% year round. This precise control is due to the fragile nature of the bones. Unlike dinosaur fossils that have turned to stone, the mammoth bones and tusks are just as fragile as the shale that surrounds them. Without the rigorous environmental control, the site would slowly deteriorate and be ruined for future generations.

The dig site has been active for over 20 years and still has decades of research in the ground. The dig site has been active for over 20 years and still holds decades of research in the ground.

Luckily, should that ever happen, there would hopefully be more mammoths beneath the surface. Tests have estimated that the sinkhole and fossil bed is approximately 100 feet deep, 60 of that still being underground and undisturbed. Despite having only investigated less than half of the site, they have already found 61 mammoths, as well as various other animals, including a short-faced bear that is now extinct. All the mammoths so far discovered have been male, and all but one have been juvenile males. To date, The Mammoth Site has the highest concentration of mammoth fossils in the world.

The theory behind this extends from the traits of modern elephants. It is believed that mammoths modeled a matriarchal society; one in which young juvenile males that got out of line would be kicked out of the herd. In the time period of these mammoths, an excluded juvenile could then either dig through deep snow to try to find food or go for some of the attractive greenery growing around this warm sinkhole—inevitably falling in and unable to get out. Despite being excellent swimmers, the shale and clay that formed the walls of the sinkhole is extremely slippery when wet and would have made it nearly impossible for a mammoth to escape.

After spending some time in the main dig room, you can journey to the next part of The Mammoth Site which is the Exhibits Hall. Containing a life-size model of a Columbian Mammoth, as well as a skeleton of the short-faced bear and many other interesting things, the Exhibits Hall is full of information for both the devoted historian and amateur alike. Priding itself on being an education and research institute, The Mammoth Site has information readily available for all levels.

The short-faced bear can reach 16 feet into the air and weighed between 2000 - 2600 lbs. The short-faced bear could reach 16 feet into the air and weighed between 2000 - 2600 lbs.

Don’t forget to head down the elevator to observe the lab where you can see how they prepare, clean and organize their fossils and microfossils. Even though the larger bones are generally more exciting and provide a better visual, the microfossils give a much better indication of what life and the environment was like during their time of existence. Microfossils include things like rodents, lizards, shells, and other objects less than 1 lb. in weight.

The bone vault keeps all of the discoveries from the dig pit safe from the environment, and available for visiting scientists and students. The bone vault keeps all of the discoveries from the dig pit safe from the environment and available for visiting scientists and students.

One area I was lucky enough to visit that isn’t included in the standard tour is their Bone Vault. This is where they store all of the fossils after they have been taken out of the dig site and cleaned by the preparation staff. In this room lies their largest tusk to date, a massive 11-foot tusk partially cased in a purple cast. There is also a large Columbian mammoth skull that has currently racked up around 2,000 hours of cleanup time and still requires a bit more. Did I mention how time intensive this job is?

The largest tusk found at the Mammoth Site is a massive 11-feet in length, only 2 feet short of the world record. The largest tusk found at The Mammoth Site is 11 feet in length; only 2 feet short of the world record.

What’s even better than seeing all of this awesome stuff, you ask? Doing it yourself, of course! At The Mammoth Site you’re in luck because during the summer they offer both a Jr. Paleontology and Advanced Paleontology course geared for kids, but don’t be afraid to jump in as an adult; you won’t be the first. The Jr. program focuses mainly on digging and the methods and techniques, while the advanced program teaches the students how to cast and map out their dig site. And while they prefer advanced registration, you are always more than welcome to ask if there is room in the next class, but be warned as they fill up fast. These classes are held indoors with full air conditioning so no matter what the weather does you can be sure to enjoy them!

A Jr. Paleontology dig site ready for the next group of young adventurers to discover the world under the dirt. A Jr. Paleontology dig site ready for the next group of young adventurers to discover the world under the dirt.

If you find yourself in Hot Springs any time of the year, be sure to stop at The Mammoth Site and check out one of the Black Hills’ most unique education and research facilities, the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else in the world!

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About the Author

Nik is an Aberdeen native and views the Black Hills as a much needed reprieve from the never ending plains of Eastern South Dakota. He graduated from Northern State University with a degree in Fine Arts and Multimedia Design, both of which he enjoys using as the Marketing Project Specialist at Black Hills & Badlands Tourism Association. He and his wife own a martial arts gym in Rapid City and most of his time outside of work goes into training and growing that program. When not working he loves cooking and trying new beers from all around the world. He has dreams of traveling to every country in the world at least once and living abroad for an entire year at some point in his life.

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